“When our ancestors wanted food, they went to the jungle to pluck fruit. When we are hungry , we come back to our homes,“ said Shyamlal, narrating how the right of forest dwellers on forests was snatched by the British and not restored even after Independence. He also complains bitterly that land rights for forest dwellers have not become an election issue.
In 1994, Shyamlal became a part of an all India movement which demanded rights of forest dwellers on `Jal, Jungle, Jameen’. When demands were not met even after a decade, the `dakhal’ campaign began in 2005. Arable land was occupied for cooperative farming in many parts of the country .Shyamlal and Lalti led it in Harra-Biraula village with the help of the All India Union of Forest Working People.
In view of popular sentiment, the UPA government passed the Forest Rights Act in 2006 which recognized land rights of forest dwellers.
“In the meantime, our harassment began. When we occupied land in 2005, only cases of encroachment were lodged against villagers. However, after enactment of FRA 2006, when the nexus of forest officials, land mafia and police saw that it was losing the battle, there was a flood of cases. A case of illegal quarrying was filed when we used mud and stones to construct kuccha houses, trespassing when our cattle strayed into the forest, tree-cutting for collecting dry wood for cooking and when we held demonstration against this harassment, FIRs accusing us of vitiating peace and instigating riots were lodged,“ claimed Shyamlal. They also instigated some villagers against me,“ claimed Shyamlal adding that he had to spend half of is earnings in fighting court cases.
He was externed for two months in 2007 and six months in 2016. During this period, he had to report to the nearest police station every week. Since he had no place to live, he spent the externment period on railway platforms. Each time, he got relief from the court. In his absence, Lalti took the command of the movement and faced the consequences.
Problems compounded as the movement did not reach the desired result. Ten years after enactment of the FRA, many are still waiting for land rights. In Sonbhadra alone, of 64,000 claims filed by forest dwellers, 55,000 were rejected on technical grounds such as residence proof.
Today , the couple is worried about their five children aged 15-25 years than themselves. Their future, they say , is uncertain because of increasing police harassment.